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Can my boss view my personal e-mail and online activity?

In today’s heavily computerized offices, it’s so easy to while away time on personal e-mail, social networking and other non-work-related activities. But your boss may be watching.

The legal situation on workplace privacy is hazy in Canada.

Technically, your employer does have the right to monitor activity on your work computer.  It’s widely accepted that an employer needs a degree of access in order to maintain security and ensure reasonable use of company time and resources. For example, looking at a news website is probably fine, whereas illegally downloading music or watching movies likely isn’t.

Employers can be fairly safe in monitoring online usage provided they tell their employees that it’s happening. Most employers have an acceptable use policy outlining the limits of your online activity and may even block sites they don’t want you viewing.

But how far can they go in eyeing your online activity?

In 2009, the Alberta Court of Appeal backed an employer’s right to monitor workers. In a case where an employee was fired for sending racist and pornographic e-mails, the court said: “the workplace is not an employee’s home; and employees have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their workplace computers.”

It added that while employers may allow some personal use of office computers, “the employer is entitled to restrict the terms and conditions on which that use may be permitted.” 

A 2012 Supreme Court of Canada decision muddied the waters by backing an employee’s privacy rights. In this case, a teacher was fired after the school found sexual images of a student on his computer, but the court ruled that the school violated his privacy. The court said Canadians can “reasonably expect privacy in the information contained on these computers, at least where personal use is permitted or reasonably expected.” 

It noted that there are competing interests in such cases: the employer’s right to ensure proper use of its resources versus the employee’s right to privacy.

Whether or not your boss is actually viewing your online activity, the law indicates they’re entitled to — within reasonable limits. So be cautious about what you say and do on your workplace device.

Read more:

Office of the Privacy Commissioner: Privacy Toolkit

Digital Privacy Act